This post comes with a trigger warning. I talk about suicide and mental health and what might work.
“I reject your reality and substitute my own!”*
That is arguably the most important line in all of ‘Mythbusters’ history. It’s the moment, for me anyhow, when the show became more than just two guys destroying things in a ‘scientific’ way and became something more. It’s such an appealing idea for many reasons.
I’ll start with a heavy one.
Today, a Twitter friend tweeted this:
”@Dr_Kalmia Just learned that I’ve lost another friend to suicide.”
Hearing about a suicide of anyone will make me cry. Knowing the person doesn’t matter. It’s tragic and not just for that person, for the family and friends of the person as well. There’s a gap in the world when a person commits suicide. As Ben Kenobi in ‘Star Wars’ says:
“A disturbance in The Force, as if millions of voices cried out and were suddenly silenced”
There are ripples that go beyond that person/family/friends. One suicide can trigger others to follow suit, as if sudden permission is given.
And it’s all based on a feeling the person has, something along the lines of: I feel I can no longer exist. I am worthless. I am useless. No one cares. No one will miss me. I haven’t done anything of importance here so it’s time for me to go and give someone else the resources I would otherwise use & space to thrive where I couldn’t. I am in so much pain that I can’t take it any more. Carrying around this weight is too much and I’m going to let it all go now.
I have had these thoughts in the past. I never acted on them though and I’m not sure why. Part of it is I’m not an impulsive person. And research has shown the act of trying to take your own life is a temporary state. Suicide attempt Survivors have reported wanting to take the decision back as soon as they leapt from the Golden Gate Bridge. Another part for me is not being sure how to act on those feelings (no Golden Gate near me). Barriers to entry mean fewer people will act on their feelings. Beyond hoping I’d get run over by a bus in my day-to-day activities, I had no idea how to ensure I could actually act on my feelings.
The feeling, if not acted upon, will go away. Feelings change, often quickly. Having people to talk to really helped me (depression is in part a disease of disconnection from others— I’ve always had a sense of being an untouchable, even if I’m in fact not— I do have friends & family).
It’s appealing to think you could reach a person contemplating ending their life:
I reject your reality and substitute my own.
It’s not as if my life is particularly great or that I’ve got it all figured out (I don’t and seem to have trouble succeeding despite idiocy as well…sustained effort, sure, just feels like I’m on a treadmill, not making forward progress too much of the time). But, I do not want to take my own life and that’s the reality I’d like to replace for that person who’s in pain (psychic pain = real pain). I don’t know that this would actually work in practice, but it’s a thought that you want things to be different than they are for that person in that moment. The definition of suffering in Buddhism is wishing something were other than it is. Reaching the person, even in a passive way with a barrier to them acting on their feeling is so important for bringing the number of suicides down. I reject your reality and substitute my own…where you let go of your psychic pain and live.
One of my favorite recent discoveries is @tschwenkler who’s been sharing things from the archives of her site ‘The Unlost’. This one is about dealing with life when things are tough where she outlines 8 ways of coping, 7 of which do not work, and one that is hard, but better than the alternatives. Number 3 is “Ignore all suckiness”. I’ve been guilty of that. I reject your reality and substitute my own TV show, book, drunken stupor, alternate universe. A lot of us wish problems would just go away (and sometimes waiting for something to resolve itself is exactly the right thing to do). It’s a form of numbing to just distract ourselves from the issues we face; and it’s tempting to just not move forward because resolving things seems impossible. If you’re already carrying a heavy rock of depression around with you, it’s particularly easy to ignore anything but that depressive voice and stay on the floor. Depression is a way of avoiding suckiness even if it is it’s own quagmire.
I reject your reality and substitute my own. Depression, you are not me and I’m letting you go because you don’t serve my needs. Ignoring depression is hard. It’s there, talking to you all the time. One key to getting past it (for me, at least) is challenging the reality it’s presenting. Challenging negative thinking. Recognize ruminative thought loops and challenge them. Replace them with evidence to the contrary, even if you don’t believe it, just go through the exercise. It’s a different way of thinking. Depression acts to keep you from speaking about it by telling you no one will get it, it’s not that bad, if you speak up you’ll lose your job. The more depression gets dragged into the light, the weaker it gets (accept that it’s there and very real, just don’t let it consume you). Andrew Solomon gave an excellent TED talk that really gets into what depression is and how to deal with it (to live now is actually a good thing; it’s a very addressable problem with many potential solutions from modern medicine to counseling to brain hacking— for lack of a better term— none of them are perfect or necessarily well understood, but it’s something). As he notes— the opposite of depression is not happiness, it’s vitality.
I reject your reality, depression, and substitute my own more vital version.
For me, the thing I’m most ignoring is the terrible job market and trying to truly figure out what I’m going to do with my life (resolved: not nothing). And of course, it’s only recently that I can claim I’m managing my depression well, but the job market thing is depressing to me and I’m afraid to engage with it and plunge myself back down into a cavern of doom. I reject your reality and substitute a good job market to leap into. There is some evidence that depressed people see the world accurately, exactly as it is whereas non-depressives see a rosier picture of things, a more optimistic version of reality (which is oddly, adaptive). The optimist attitude is incentive to keep trying even if things aren’t good out there.
When Adam Savage said this iconic line, he was doing it in the context of a result from an experiment they’d run where the result was not as anticipated. In the lab, I think many scientists can relate to the feeling. You do work for years and suddenly an experiment gives a result that’s unexpected and years of work turns out to be wrong. I reject your reality and substitute my own. Now, of course, in science, we’re trying to measure and describe nature in as objective a way as possible and changing a result is not ethical. Designing a new experiment to test the idea is kosher though. Whether it’s worth doing is what scientific debates are all about. I had a big experimental failure a few years ago. A whole line of experiments I had been working on proved completely useless. It was a huge blow to me. I’m still recovering in some ways, but am not ignoring it, exactly. I reject your reality and substitute my own fully successful experiment.
For all these reasons and more “I reject your reality and substitute my own” is a good line that made one show more than it was at first and resonates with people. Whatever is going on in your life now, I hope 2014 is a year where you reject a reality that no longer works for you and substitute your own version that does (do so ethically, of course).
*I did some Googling and found that the actual origin of this line is from the Tom Baker era ‘Doctor Who’ (love that I get to mention Doctor Who’ here!). In that case the line is “I deny your reality and substitute my own”, the ‘reject’ came in what sounds like a bad sci-fi movie in the 80’s, but Adam Savage certainly popularized the phrase.